The Cost of Inefficient Food Systems

Poor Agricultural Practices

For the past several decades, climate scientists have warned that agricultural industries must undergo significant changes if we are to avoid catastrophic levels of warming to the planet. The global agricultural industry has a notoriously large carbon footprint and, alongside transportation, is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases. In the U.S., agricultural land use accounts for 20% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. The amount of freshwater and other resources used to maintain livestock alone has a massive impact on the environment, and when combined with harmful techniques such as slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation, overgrazing, and the use of chemical fertilizers, this could spell disaster for these areas if more sustainable methods are not introduced. Agriculture is just one facet of the food industry that contributes to global climate change, but nearly every stage of food, whether it be production, transportation, distribution, or consumption, has its own adverse effects on the environment.

Food Loss vs. Food Waste

Food waste, as the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) defines it, is “…food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste by consumers.”  Food loss, however, is considered to be any food products that are unused or thrown away before being purchased by consumers. The majority of food loss occurs during the production stage, mainly because produce items do not meet certain aesthetic standards and are therefore rejected by supermarkets. There is also a significant portion of food that spoils during transportation, and is therefore uneaten. This is also considered a form of food loss because it occurs before reaching the hands of consumers, meaning that the 49 million tons per year that are wasted in individual households is just a fraction of the total food products that actually go to waste.  

The Environmental Impact of Uneaten Food

Since only about 5% of leftover food products get composted, the vast majority of them end up in landfills, making it the largest source of solid municipal waste in the United States. When these food products begin to decompose, they release a powerful greenhouse gas called methane, which is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Food waste is also responsible for 25% of freshwater consumption and is the leading cause of freshwater pollution. 


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